Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world


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Le voyage de Darwin


5 July - 27 November 1832
Montevideo, Punta Alta, giant fossils, Buenos Aires

Porpoises, seals, penguins and natural fireworks (actually St Elmo's fire) enlivened the Beagle's journey from Rio de Janeiro to Montevideo. Still suffering from seasickness, Darwin was no doubt relieved when the boat dropped anchor on July 26. Several days later, some of the crew were requisitioned by the local police chief to help quell an insurrection in the town. The situation in Montevideo was tense. The young naturalist sent his first batch of specimens collected since the beginning of the voyage off to England, not without some apprehension about the interest that the British specialists would show in this first consignment.

The ship began to explore the coasts of the region, which enabled Darwin to carry out several expeditions into countryside that was teeming with weird and wonderful animals: blind rodents, huge capybaras, foul-smelling deer, mocking birds, comical flycatchers, devilish toads, repugnant carrion eaters, snake-lizards, fast-running ostriches, stupid partridges, pumas, llamas, etc. He also got to know the gauchos, the local cowboys who could work wonders with the lasso as they drove their huge herds of cattle across the pampas. He shared meals with them, which must have seemed pretty exotic for an Englishman of his time. On the menu were such delights as ostrich and armadillo!

Darwin spent several weeks collecting fossils at Punta Alta, an astonishing burial ground full of the remains of gigantic animals belonging to extinct families. He discovered huge fossilized bones, including the remains of Megatherium, Megalonyx, Scelidotherium and Mylodon. Astonishingly, some of these huge unknown prehistoric mammals bore a strange resemblance to the present-day armadillo. This important discovery played a large role in challenging the notion of fixed, unchanging species. Further backing for this idea came from the bones of Toxodon that he also found there. This extinct animal was odd in many respects: it was the size of an elephant, had a rodent's teeth, and had the anatomical features of both pachyderms and aquatic animals. Darwin was greatly surprised to find the characteristics of species that are so distinct today brought together in one and the same animal. Another peculiarity of this exceptional site was highly intriguing. All these fossils were mixed up with shells that were scarcely different from those of modern times. This confirmed one of the geologist Charles Lyell's theories, namely that mammal species lasted for less time than mollusk species. In the fall, Darwin received by mail a copy of the second volume of Lyell's 'Principles of Geology', which he had eagerly been awaiting. However for now Captain FitzRoy was finding it hard to understand the need to clutter up his ship with all this 'rubbish', that to his mind was completely useless!

In early September, Darwin, FitzRoy and Harris, a local English trader who served as their guide, stayed at a military fortress called Fort Argentina. The commander of the fortress accommodated them with some suspicion, especially this naturalist whose mission he didn't understand. Suspecting them of being spies, he ordered his soldiers to keep a very close eye on their every move. During his forays inland, Darwin was surprised by the local vegetation, which often consisted of huge grassy plains, the well-known pampas. What could be the reasons for such a small number of trees in the various parts of the region? The strength of the wind? The type of drainage? Neither of these theories was particularly convincing. If, as Darwin believed, the presence of forests was determined by the annual amount of precipitation, the whole area should have been covered with them, and yet this was not the case.

In November they passed through Buenos Aires. Darwin was astonished by the city's European appearance. He took advantage of the occasion to go to the theater, a brief social interlude in this rough, tough venture. Neither was he indifferent to the beauty of the señoritas of this great South American port! Shortly before the departure of the Beagle on the next stage of its voyage, Darwin sent his second batch of specimens back to England. There were bones from Punta Alta, a strange bird, snakes, shellfish and crustaceans, plants, various species of fish, toads, seeds, beetles: the list was endless. On November 27, the ship left the port of Montevideo and headed for Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of the continent. Their meeting with the natives was to be a memorable one.

CNRS    sagascience